Reasons for Decline
Since the late 1980s the population of Vancouver Island marmots has been declining drastically. Now, the Vancouver Island marmot has the unfortunate distinction of being Canada’s most endangered animal. Currently, the Vancouver Island marmot is listed as ‘critically endangered’ by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources. In 2004, it was estimated there were only 35 individuals left in one location in the wild (Nagorsen et al., 2008).
The reasons for the continued decrease in Vancouver Island marmot populations remain unclear, but it is generally believed that habitat modification and predation are the primary causes of decline (Vancouver Island Marmot Recovery Foundation, 2007). Human activities, such as clear-cut logging, have altered the landscape surrounding Vancouver Island marmot habitat. Since the initial stages of forest regeneration after clear-cutting resemble the habitat of alpine meadow, dispersing marmots often settle themselves in these regions. However, scientists have found that their survival rate in these modified habitats is significantly lower than in natural alpine meadows. Marmots inhabiting these clear-cut areas are more vulnerable to predation by cougars, wolves, and golden eagles. They are also prone to higher death rates during hibernation (Nagorsen et al., 2008). Logging also has the ability to fragment the marmot’s natural habitat which can lead to interbreeding and a loss of genetic diversity within individual populations of Vancouver Island marmot.
What We've Done
The future of Canada's most endangered animal hinges on the success of captive‑breeding and reintroduction programs. Breeding Vancouver Island marmots in a predictable and reliable manner is, however, an extremely difficult process that has hindered scientists’ ability to produce enough marmots for reintroduction while maintaining a healthy breeding population.
In the past, scientists at the Centre for Conservation Research worked to address this challenge by researching how best to pair and house Vancouver Island marmots. Since Vancouver Island marmots are endangered, and consequently highly sensitive to environmental stress, all of the research was conducted in an extremely unobtrusive manner. Cameras, connected to 24-hour recording systems, in the marmots’ indoor and outdoor enclosures and nest boxes allowed the scientists to study the breeding behavior and social interactions of Vancouver Island marmots without causing them undue stress. It is hoped that, with the CCR’s research findings, wildlife biologists will be able to develop more effective Vancouver Island marmot mating strategies and, by implementing these strategies, optimize conservation-breeding efforts. In the past, the Centre’s scientists also researched the behavior of marmots in their burrows (which are inaccessible in the wild) in order to gain a better understanding of what causes the deaths of Vancouver Island marmots during hibernation. Using the information gleaned from this study, these scientists are evaluating whether captive animals are retaining the necessary behaviors for survival in the wild.
- Nagorsen, D.W., Cannings, S. & Hammerson, G. (2008) Marmota vancouverensis. In: IUCN 2008. 2008 IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.[Internet] Available from: www.iucnredlist.org. Accessed 2009 January 21.
- Vancouver Island Marmot Recovery Foundation (2007) The Vancouver Island Marmot. [Internet] Available from: http://www.marmots.org Accessed 2009 January 21.